Quiet honors for a WW II veteran
There was a cake, shared with friends, but for Neal Hazelton, just having his wife, Delores, back after being away for medical treatment was worth celebrating.
Born and raised in Brainerd, the Hazeltons lived in Funkley before moving to their apartment in Heritage House.
This week, he seemed as proud of their 63 years of marriage and of their three children with their own successful careers, as of anything. He was more anxious to tell of the children's accomplishments than of his own service as an anti-tank platoon leader in the Infantry during World War II.
Hazelton saw action as a sergeant ("I had three stripes.") in the South Pacific including assignments on the islands of Saipan and Okinawa. He recalls an action where the men were advancing in a long line when they came under fire.
"We'd gone 15 days without a shot being fired," Hazelton remembered. "Then we started moving forward in a mile-long row. We came under fire right after that and it was coming from a ridge and there was a lot of it." It was probably shrapnel from a Japanese grenade that wounded him in the leg, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. He doesn't go into a lot of detail but showed the scar which is still there.
Hazelton was nominated for a second Purple Heart in another action, a nomination he declined to accept.
Like scores of veterans of World War II, Hazelton has been asked if he was a hero, and has offers the same answer each time he's asked.
"I never figured myself to be a hero," he says, "because in that war everybody was a hero." He talks of the people back home growing food, delivering groceries, doing their everyday jobs so "we could win the war. The people back home -- they were as much heroes as anyone."
"I saw an officer once with medals all over, but just because he wasn't up ahead in the battle some people wondered how he got them. I just remember that he was responsible for all those men under him, and to me, he earned every one of those ribbons."
After leaving the Army, Hazelton spent 20 years working on cars. When he retired, he and Delores sat around their house for two weeks, wondering what to do. He went looking and was soon employed, doing various jobs at boat landings and clearing brush with the Forest Service.
The Hazeltons had two children and adopted a third. The latter, a son, has spent 22 years with the Hillshire Farms food company. Their own son is with Marvin Windows Company in Warroad and the daughter with Wells Fargo at a bank in Minneapolis.
Hazelton was discharged at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin 54 years ago this week. His discharge came just a few weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been hit by the first atomic bombs. Asked how he felt about the use of those weapons, he answered first that he felt it was a good thing because of all the lives -- American and Japanese--that were saved because it ended the war.
Then, he added, "It meant we could go home."